CNN Has Big Plans for Kaitlan Collins

From a Wall Street Journal story by Isabella Simonetti headlined “CNN Has Big Plans for Town Hall Star”:

CNN’s town hall with former President Donald Trump wasn’t just a high-stakes event for the network. It was a big moment for one of its rising stars.

Kaitlan Collins, who moderated the town hall, has rocketed through CNN’s ranks over the past three years, from chief White House correspondent to morning show anchor to, now, a top candidate to help CNN Chief Executive Chris Licht remake prime time.

In the town hall, Ms. Collins was put in front of a sizable television audience to spar with Mr. Trump as a crowd of more than 300 people—likely Republican primary voters—often cheered on the former president.

At times, the discussion turned personal, such as in one early exchange in which Ms. Collins said that there was no evidence of fraud in the 2020 presidential election. “It’s the truth, Mr. President,” she said.

Mr. Trump pushed back: “That was a horrible election,” he said. “And unless somebody is very stupid—and I know you very well. You’re not stupid at all. But you perhaps are given an agenda, or you have an agenda.”

Later, when they discussed how Mr. Trump took classified documents when leaving the White House, he called her “a nasty person.”

The town hall was watched by 3.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen data provided by CNN, much higher than CNN’s typical average in prime time but smaller than the audience for major political debates. A Fox News town hall with Mr. Trump in 2020 drew 5.1 million viewers, according to the network.

CNN has been struggling with its lowest ratings in years. Mr. Licht is trying to reset its approach to coverage, and make it more in touch with an audience beyond the Northeast, after internal research found that viewers were turned off by inflammatory political coverage, a person familiar with the matter said.

If Mr. Licht’s goal was to avoid inflammatory political coverage, Wednesday’s event didn’t hit the mark, according to a variety of pundits who panned the event on social media, saying it gave Mr. Trump airtime to repeat lies about the election and make light of sexual abuse.

“The format was impossible and CNN’s bosses should have known that,” tweeted Charlie Sykes, co-founder of the Bulwark and a political commentator.

“It was the Hindenburg disaster of TV news,” Keith Olbermann, a former MSNBC host and CNN reporter, said in a video posted to Twitter.

Some observers said Ms. Collins was bulldozed by Mr. Trump. Many others blamed the network for putting her in what they said was a thankless position.

“The problem is not Kaitlan Collins,” Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), tweeted. “The problem is a media establishment and a Republican Party that is dedicated to normalizing a radical and dangerous political figure. Applause and ratings are not more important than our democracy.”

“The issue isn’t so much whether [Kaitlan] Collins is doing a good or bad job,” Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, tweeted. “The issue is that there’s no job here for a journalist to do.”

CNN stood by its decision to hold the town hall. Ms. Collins “asked tough, fair and revealing questions,” the network said. “And she followed up and fact-checked President Trump in real-time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions as he enters the 2024 election as the Republican front-runner.”

Ms. Collins’s Alabama upbringing and conservative bona fides—she covered Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential run as the White House correspondent for the Daily Caller—have quickly made her a key player in Mr. Licht’s stable. Colleagues credit her with being sharp and prepared.

Ms. Collins is in pole position to anchor the network’s 9 p.m. hour, a person familiar with the situation said. Puck earlier reported that Mr. Licht was planning to offer her a new 9 p.m. contract.

Ms. Collins moved to CNN in 2017 as a White House reporter. Like many reporters, Ms. Collins sparred with the Trump administration. In 2018, she was banned from a press event in the Rose Garden after she repeatedly asked Mr. Trump questions centered around his former lawyer Michael Cohen and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the time, Ms. Collins said the White House deemed her questions inappropriate. The White House Correspondents’ Association and Fox News issued statements in support of Ms. Collins.

“She’s certainly not someone who’s perceived I think by anyone as being an activist, being ideologically motivated, she’s just a good old-fashioned straight-shooting reporter,” said Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine’s Washington correspondent and a friend of Ms. Collins.

She was one of the reporters Mr. Trump feared most, said Alyssa Farah Griffin, a CNN commentator who served as former Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary and a special assistant to Mr. Trump. “He knew he would not get by just kind of dismissing a question when she was in the briefing room,” Ms. Griffin said.

Early in her CNN tenure, Ms. Collins dealt with a controversy after past tweets resurfaced in which she made antigay remarks. At the time, Ms. Collins apologized in a tweet: “When I was in college, I used ignorant language in a few tweets to my friends. It was immature but it doesn’t represent the way I feel at all. I regret it and apologize.”

Last year, the network named her a co-host of “CNN This Morning.” Like much of CNN’s lineup, that show has struggled in the ratings, and dealt with controversy stemming from remarks made by former host Don Lemon, with whom CNN recently parted ways.

CNN would find a new co-anchor for “CNN This Morning” if Ms. Collins is elevated. The network recently announced a new prime-time show with former National Basketball Association star Charles Barkley and “CBS Mornings” anchor Gayle King.

During the town hall, voters asked Mr. Trump questions about topics ranging from gun control to abortion. Ms. Collins repeatedly pressed the former president on his false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. He said he would accept the results of the 2024 election if it is “an honest election.”

Ms. Collins also asked him whether he would take back his statement that powerful and famous people can grab women by their genitals: “You would like me to take that back. I can’t take it back because it happens to be true,” Mr. Trump said.

Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News host, said on Twitter, “This is promulgating the cult leadership of Trump—and people are laughing at sexual assault.”

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